This is part of a series called “City Managers are Real Characters,” contemplating how your favorite fictional characters might fare in our field. Previously: Anthony Soprano, Coach Herman Boone, Remember the Titans, Princess Leia, City Manager.
By Matt Horn, City of Geneva, NY, City Manager
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“Life moves pretty fast…” and at City Hall it moves a lot faster. If you grew up in the 80’s, Ferris Bueller was most likely a hero of yours. Too slick for parents and principals, cunning enough to trump the lunch reservation of the “Sausage King of Chicago,” and someone who truly cares about his friends. But can he translate those critical, everyday life skills into managing a community of choice?
Now it’s time to suspend belief for a bit…Forgetting the fact that he’s 17 years-old–we’re assuming that Ferris was able to overcome his absenteeism and charm his way through his remaining high school trials, and that he successfully navigated the rigors of a public management degree. He’s now ready to enter the workforce, and has knocked on your HR door, looking for a spot on your leadership team. Does he have the chops?
Traits to Celebrate
The whole world (save a few school administrators) loves this guy. He must be doing something right. Despite his hang-ups, he does have a lot of what makes up a solid leader. Here are a few attributes that might carry him through a long City Council meeting:
Despite the rantings of online forums and letters to the editor, the vast majority of local leaders are pretty intelligent folks. In most cases, you’ve had to demonstrate your academic rigor by completing graduate and undergraduate work, and apply that book learnin’ in progressively responsible public management scenarios. The diversity of skills needed to manage a community, including the critical ability to manage people, demonstrate a typically strong intellectual hand.
Ethics aside, you’ve got to admit that Ferris is a pretty smart fellow. His parents saw his promise when they bought him a computer instead of a car. He’s able to assess situations and develop strategies for navigating challenges to advance his cause. As a youngster, he used that intelligence for relatively nefarious purposes (i.e. hacking into the school computer to erase a few absences), but if he could point his smarts to something positive, we could really leverage that.
Most of us work in organizations with consistently tenuous revenues. As a public manager, the number one directive from most City Councils is to either generate more (non-tax) revenues, or do more with the resources you have. A solid City Manager seeks out every possible avenue for leveraging additional resources to meet the community’s goals, or finds ways to use the organization’s existing resources in a new, innovative way to get at the challenge more cost-and-mission-effectively. This most often takes the form of leveraging technology and your people’s strengths.
Ferris finds creative ways to use every possible resource to his advantage. Need to get your girlfriend out of class? Your best friend does a great impression of her father. Need to ward off nosy truant officers/principals? Create a system that leverages your computer and intercom to give the impression that you’re home. While I certainly don’t recommend duping your Mayor with a pre-recorded message about being in the office, I do applaud the use of technology and the skill sets of your team, which Ferris has down to a science. If he had a full City technology budget, and a dynamic management team, he could seriously advance a community.
This is a tricky one. From my viewpoint, every public manager needs a bit of charisma to help you work with stakeholders of differing priorities and passions. In this case, we’ll define charisma as the ability to read your audience, listen, and help them know that they’ve been heard. Then, turn to a diametrically different audience, and do the exact same thing. It requires you to set your personal or pre-determined preferences aside, and connect with people of varying viewpoints. Jim Collins, in his Good to Great work insists that charisma not be the primary tenet of any leadership style, and that a solely charismatic leader will do more harm to an organization than good.
Ferris seems to have a balanced portfolio of attributes, of which charisma is most certainly one. After being absent 9 days in a semester, he is able to convince his parents that he is too sick to go to school on a beautiful spring day. After physically assaulting his best friend, he is able to help him understand why his father’s Ferrari is crucial to the day’s goals. If this were his standalone leadership quality, we’d be in the Collins camp, and likely take a pass on Bueller. But, when coupled with the other key leadership qualities, Ferris still has a shot at City Hall.
Things to Watch Out For
When you saw the character I was set to portray, you probably assumed this article would be dominated by things to watch out for. I think we’ve shown that there are pixels of leadership in this young man. But ditching gym and sneaking into French restaurants does not a City Manager make. Like all of us, Ferris has a touch of grey or two in his leadership profile.
Okay m-words (and post-millenials), shut down the righteous indignation app and listen objectively for a second. We are just entering the dusk of an era where city management was dominated by middle-aged men. Even the most progressive of communities and councils are skeptical of a young manager, and sometimes for good reason. I was a city manager in my very early 30’s, and I spent a lot of time proving I wouldn’t steer the City into an iceberg, and learning that (at least in the first six months) you can’t run City Hall like Google (save the flip-flops for 5 p.m., and resist the urge for City Hall kegs on Fridays).
We last had a view into Ferris’s personality in his waning years of high school. His age alone doesn’t serve as a deterrent, but we need to hope that his maturity level has advanced since the days of “Danke Schoen.” City Hall is a big fishbowl, and your community is watching your every move. Major shifts in approach (including off-hours activity) from your 60+ year-old predecessor need to be supported with mature rationale and, most importantly, results.
He’s Not Super-Honest
In the vast majority of circumstances, city managers are hired hands, progressing through their careers by traveling town to town and perfecting our professional craft. For that reason, we are nearly always outsiders. Coming into a community, particularly a small city, your word is the strongest currency you will have. Constituents will not have a long track record of performance to support their opinion of you (at least in the early days). In addition, the team you inherit will need to trust you to perform. Leadership gurus James Kouzes and Barry Posner hold out honesty as one of the most critical attributes in the manager-associate relationship.
Ferris has a challenge here. At a minimum, the 90-minute window into his world that we enjoyed was peppered with subterfuge and dissembling. He built legacies of distrust with authorities and even his own sister. The more cynical members of his team will question his motives at every turn, which will slow things down and diminish productivity. New initiatives will founder, as constituents recall previous engagements where they were mislead or misinformed. People look at your word as a sheet of paper. It comes out of the package fresh and clean. Every instance of dishonesty adds a wrinkle or blemish that can sit out there for years.
Risk is Rarely a Consideration
Full faith and credit of the municipality. These are words that cities trade on to advance their goals. You can breeze past that phrase pretty quickly when reading a bond resolution, but if it is taken for granted too often, everything gets more expensive, and ultimately, you are left with few options for financing your vision. As a manager, you are entrusted with all of the assets of your community–the people’s money, buildings, parks, roads, drinking water, natural resources. Playing fast and loose with these treasures will rarely earn you points.
Find me a full crop of high school students who effectively assess and manage risk and I’ll give you all of my Schrute Bucks. It’s a skill that develops over time, and with progressive responsibility. That said, it is all the more reason to evaluate Ferris the candidate to see what has happened to his personality in these intervening years. Does he understand the gravity of the responsibility of holding the public trust? This is a deal breaker.
Is Ferris worth an interview? In my opinion, we should get him into a good middle-management role, develop out his strengths and give him some solid development programming to mitigate his challenges. He’s got the smarts and savvy to make it in the public realm, he probably just needs a bit more practical experience to get past some of these hurdles.
But hey, he’s a Cubs fan. That’s at least worth an interview.